Tag Archives: Democracy

The Coronavirus Crisis in the U.S. Is a Failure of Democracy

By David Litt – It’s become commonplace to refer to COVID-19 as “the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes.” But what has cost the United States so many lives and jobs during the pandemic is not, at root, a failure of public health. It’s a failure of democracy.

Despite our political polarization, and in the face of an unprecedented threat, the American people have been in remarkable agreement about what they expect from their government. From the time the virus was discovered, our scientists and public health officials urged aggressive action and put forward plans to save lives. Poll after poll has shown that a clear majority of Americans trust want our leaders to heed the experts’ advice. Yet that hasn’t happened. We were far too slow to implement social-distancing guidelines – a delay epidemiologists found is responsible for 90% of U.S. coronavirus deaths – and now we’re acting far too quickly to reopen the economy.

In other words, with lives on the line, our elected leaders are ignoring the people’s will, and Americans are dying as a result. In our shining city on a hill – the global model for representative government – how could this possibly happen? more>

Authoritarianism and state surveillance cannot become a post-pandemic acceptable norm

By Nicholas Waller – In the space of just a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged much of the world into a state suspended paralysis. What’s more, this crisis has laid bare just how unprepared we in the developed world are when a major global catastrophe strikes at the very heart of our way of life. But if the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that delaying prudent policymaking has deadly and economically ruinous consequences.

When the first signs of an outbreak began in China in late 2019, the earliest warnings were first covered up by a paranoid Communist regime that was intent on keeping the world uninformed about the deadly nature of the disease. Despite multiple alarms in Europe and the United States shortly after the new year, those warnings went unheeded.

While the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic await an in-depth review once the worst phase of the crisis passes, the world is now left with finding a way to somehow tame the disease while at the same time picking up the pieces of the world’s economies and forging ahead with a more secure post-pandemic existence.

In order to do that, the world’s democracies must acknowledge the disturbing speed by which aggressive and heavy-handed measures were enacted by officials in nations with little-to-no-history of authoritarianism as part of their efforts to combat the spread of the virus. This has led to many of the core tenants of modern liberal democracy becoming the main casualties of the COVID-19 crisis as strict lockdowns, curfews, restrictions on the press, public shaming of those who question the authorities, and restrictions on the right to assemble became the order of the day.

The distinctly Orwellian character of each of the aforementioned acts is impossible to ignore. This means that each of the leading nations of the free world must come to the harsh realization that once certain inalienable rights are stripped away, it is nearly impossible to ever recoup what has been forever lost – the post-9/11 world taught each and every one of us that simple but fundamental lesson.

When the world moves into the next uncharted phases of the post- COVID-19, Europeans must be at the forefront of how to demonstrate the means by which democratic principles can be preserved.

As national economies contract, resources will shrink, and governments will struggle to provide for their own populations. But by pooling together the vast scientific, manufacturing, and innovative resources that the EU possesses – and working in tandem with its close allies in the US, UK, and Canada – Europe can produce and store vital medical and telecommunications resources that would wean itself off a destructive dependence on Chinese supplies, part of which contributed to the sense of malaise and outright hubris that contributed to the severity of the pandemic. more>

The Last Time Democracy Almost Died

By Jill Lepore – American democracy, too, staggered, weakened by corruption, monopoly, apathy, inequality, political violence, hucksterism, racial injustice, unemployment, even starvation. “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy,” F.D.R. said in his first Inaugural Address, telling Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. But there was more to be afraid of, including Americans’ own declining faith in self-government.

“American democracy,” as a matter of history, is democracy with an asterisk, the symbol A-Rod’s name would need if he were ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act can the United States be said to have met the basic conditions for political equality requisite in a democracy. All the same, measured not against its past but against its contemporaries, American democracy in the twenty-first century is withering. The Democracy Index rates a hundred and sixty-seven countries, every year, on a scale that ranges from “full democracy” to “authoritarian regime.”

In 2006, the U.S. was a “full democracy,” the seventeenth most democratic nation in the world.

In 2016, the index for the first time rated the United States a “flawed democracy,” and since then American democracy has gotten only more flawed. True, the United States still doesn’t have a Rome or a Berlin to march on. That hasn’t saved the nation from misinformation, tribalization, domestic terrorism, human-rights abuses, political intolerance, social-media mob rule, white nationalism, a criminal President, the nobbling of Congress, a corrupt Presidential Administration, assaults on the press, crippling polarization, the undermining of elections, and an epistemological chaos that is the only air that totalitarianism can breathe.

Nothing so sharpens one’s appreciation for democracy as bearing witness to its demolition. Mussolini called Italy and Germany “the greatest and soundest democracies which exist in the world today,” and Hitler liked to say that, with Nazi Germany, he had achieved a “beautiful democracy,” prompting the American political columnist Dorothy Thompson to remark of the Fascist state, “If it is going to call itself democratic we had better find another word for what we have and what we want.” In the nineteen-thirties, Americans didn’t find another word. But they did work to decide what they wanted, and to imagine and to build it.

Thompson, who had been a foreign correspondent in Germany and Austria and had interviewed the Führer, said, in a column that reached eight million readers, “Be sure you know what you prepare to defend.”

It’s a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent. more>

A Foreign Policy for All

Strengthening Democracy—at Home and Abroad
By Elizabeth Warren – Around the world, democracy is under assault. Authoritarian governments are gaining power, and right-wing demagogues are gaining strength. Movements toward openness and pluralism have stalled. Inequality is growing, transforming rule by the people into rule by wealthy elites. And here in the United States, many Americans seem to accept—even embrace—the politics of division and resentment.

How did we get here?

There’s a story Americans like to tell ourselves about how we built a liberal international order—one based on democratic principles, committed to civil and human rights, accountable to citizens, bound by the rule of law, and focused on economic prosperity for all. It’s a good story, with deep roots. But in recent decades, Washington’s focus has shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites. After the Cold War, U.S. policymakers started to believe that because democracy had outlasted communism, it would be simple to build democracy anywhere and everywhere. They began to export a particular brand of capitalism, one that involved weak regulations, low taxes on the wealthy, and policies favoring multinational corporations. And the United States took on a series of seemingly endless wars, engaging in conflicts with mistaken or uncertain objectives and no obvious path to completion.

The impact of these policy changes has been devastating. While international economic policies and trade deals have worked gloriously well for elites around the world, they have left working people discouraged and disaffected. Efforts to promote the United States’ own security have soaked up huge resources and destabilized entire regions, and meanwhile, U.S. technological dominance has quietly eroded. Inequality has grown worldwide, contributing to an unfolding nationalist backlash that seeks to upend democracy itself. It is little wonder that the American people have less faith in their government today than at any other time in modern U.S. history. The country is in a moment of crisis decades in the making.

To fight back, we need to pursue international economic policies that benefit all Americans, not merely an elite few. We need strong yet pragmatic security policies, amplified by diplomacy. And the United States can no longer maintain the comfortable assumption that its domestic and foreign policies are separate. Every decision the government makes should be grounded in the recognition that actions that undermine working families in this country ultimately erode American strength in the world. In other words, we need a foreign policy that works for all Americans.

The urgency of the moment cannot be overstated. At home and abroad, democracy is on the defense. The details of the problem vary from place to place, but one cause stands out everywhere: the systematic failure to understand and invest in the social, political, and economic foundations on which democracies rest. If we do not stand up to those who seek to undermine our democracy and our economy, we will end up as bystanders to the destruction of both. more>

Too Much Democracy Is Bad for Democracy

The major American parties have ceded unprecedented power to primary voters. It’s a radical experiment—and it’s failing.
By Jonathan Rauch and Ray La Raja – Americans who tuned in to the first Democratic presidential debates this summer beheld a spectacle that would have struck earlier generations as ludicrous. A self-help guru and a tech executive, both of them unqualified and implausible as national candidates, shared the platform with governors, senators, and a former vice president. Excluded from the proceedings, meanwhile, were the popular Democratic governor of a reliably Republican state and a congressman who is also a decorated former marine.

If the range of participants seemed odd, it was because the party had decided to let small donors and opinion polls determine who deserved the precious national exposure of the debate stage. Those were peculiar metrics by which to make such an important decision, especially given recent history.

Had the Democrats seen something they liked in the 2016 Republican primary? The GOP’s nominating process was a 17-candidate circus in which the party stood by helplessly as it was hijacked by an unstable reality-TV star who was not, by any meaningful standard, a Republican.

Americans rarely pause to consider just how bizarre the presidential nominating process has become. No other major democracy routinely uses primaries to choose its political candidates, nor did the Founders of this country intend for primaries to play a role in the republican system they devised.

Abraham Lincoln did not win his party’s nomination because he ran a good ground game in New Hampshire; rather, Republican elders saw in him a candidate who could unite rival factions within the party and defeat the Democratic nominee in the general election.

Today’s system amounts to a radical experiment in direct democracy, one without precedent even in America’s own political history.

The two major parties made primaries decisive as recently as the early 1970s. Until then, primaries had been more like political beauty contests, which the parties’ grandees could choose to ignore. But after Hubert Humphrey became the Democrats’ 1968 nominee without entering a single primary, outrage in the ranks led the party to put primary voters in charge. Republicans soon followed suit. more>

Nobel Economist Says Inequality is Destroying Democratic Capitalism

By Angus Deaton – As at no other time in my lifetime, people are troubled by inequality.

Across the rich world, not only in America, large groups of people are currently questioning whether their economies are working for them. The same can be said of politics. Two-thirds of Americans without a college degree believe that there is no point in voting, because elections are rigged in favor of big business and the rich. Britain is divided as never before and, once again, many believe that their voice doesn’t count either in Brussels or in Westminster. And one of the greatest miracles of the 20th century, the miracle of falling mortality and rising lifespans, is no longer delivering for everyone, and is now faltering or reversing.

At the risk of grandiosity, I think that today’s inequalities are signs that democratic capitalism is under threat, not only in the US, where the storm clouds are darkest, but in much of the rich world, where one or more of politics, economics, and health are changing in worrisome ways. I do not believe that democratic capitalism is beyond repair nor that it should be replaced; I am a great believer in what capitalism has done, not only to the oft-cited billions who have been pulled out of poverty in the last half-century, but to all the rest of us who have also escaped poverty and deprivation over the last two and a half centuries.

But we need to think about repairs for democratic capitalism, either by fixing what is broken, or by making changes to head off the threats; indeed, I believe that those of us who believe in social democratic capitalism should be leading the charge to make repairs. As it is, capitalism is not delivering to large fractions of the population; in the US, where the inequalities are clearest, real wages for men without a four-year college degree have fallen for half a century, even at a time when per capita GDP has robustly risen. more>

Giving Europe political substance

By Mary Kaldor – Many of us who live in Britain feel embarrassed and ashamed by the contortions of our politics and the meanness of our government, towards the poor, the foreign and, particularly, the European—which is only going to get worse with Boris Johnson as prime minister.

Yet, paradoxically, the continuing struggle over ‘Brexit’ is an expression of democracy: the fact that the UK has not yet left the European Union is due to debates and positions which have been taken in Parliament, based on a mix of tactical advantage, public pressure and moral conscience. ‘Britain is thinking,’ I remember the great English-European historian Edward Thompson saying during the 1980s—‘and it only thinks every 50 years or so.’

Yes, the rise of right-wing populism has unleashed the dangerous demons of racism, homophobia, misogyny and general human cruelty. But it has also galvanised a new engagement with progressive politics, which could help to make possible the reforms needed if the EU is to survive until 2025.

The problem today is the weakness of substantive democracy: we have ‘a vote but not a voice’, said the Spanish indignados. And this is the consequence of three decades of neoliberalism.

The Maastricht treaty of 1991 was a compromise between the new wave of Europeanism, constructed from below by the peace and human-rights movements which opposed the cold-war divide during the 1980s, and the then newly-fashionable (if retro) market fundamentalism pioneered in Britain by Margaret Thatcher.

Maastricht enshrined in law the requirement to reduce budget deficits and the imposition on debtor countries of the burden of deflationary adjustment of fiscal imbalances. Meanwhile, the freeing up of capital movements and the liberalization of markets associated with the establishment of the single market speeded up the process of globalization, facilitated by the emergent information and communication technologies.

In a world where democratic procedures remain focused on the national level but where the decisions that affect one’s life are taken in the headquarters of multinational companies, on the laptops of financial speculators or otherwise in Brussels, Washington or New York, substantive democracy is evidently weakened. more>

The trilemma of Big Tech

By Karin Pettersson – Last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage in San Jose, California, and presented his vision for the future at the company’s yearly developers’ conference.

The attention given to the conference by the world’s media was testimony to the fact that Facebook is now more powerful than most nation states. Its products provide the infrastructure for core democratic functions such as free speech, distribution of news and access to information. Our societies, to a larger and larger degree, are shaped by how Zuckerberg and a small elite of Silicon Valley business leaders choose to do business. And the results, frankly speaking, are catastrophic.

‘Have social media made the world a better place?’ Poppy Harlow of CNN asked the influential tech writer Kara Swisher ‘No, not now’ was the dry answer.

The founder of the modern web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for regulation of the internet as the only way to save it, and the virtual-reality pioneer and internet philosopher Jaron Lanier has written a book about why people should get off ‘social media’ as soon as possible.

The current situation is clearly unsustainable and the measures taken so far to address it insufficient. But before discussing solutions we need to define what the problem is. And here it is easy to get lost in details and anecdotes. Not all of the problems of social networks are fatal to democracy.

The economist Dani Rodrik has framed the discussion around the state of the world economy as a trilemma, where hyperglobalization, democratic policies and national sovereignty are mutually incompatible. We can, he argues, combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

It might be conceptually useful to structure the discussion of the global information space in an analogous manner. One can have democracy, market dominance and business models that optimize for anger and junk—but only two at a time. more>

Democracy splutters—good governance under pressure

Amid political polarization and declining democratic standards, can OECD and EU countries sustain the good governance challenges such as globalization, social inequality and climate breakdown demand?
By Christof Schiller – Eroding standards of democracy and growing political polarization are severely hampering the implementation of sustainable reforms. This is one of the main findings in the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2018 study by the Bertelsmann Foundation.

SGI is an international monitoring tool, which sheds light on the future viability of all 41 countries in the OECD and the European Union. On the basis of 140 indicators, we assess democratic standards, the quality of governance and reforms in the areas of economics, social affairs and the environment. More than 100 international experts are involved in our cross-national survey.

The most recent study highlights how waning standards of democracy and growing political polarisation hamper sustainable reform. Governments in countries including the United States, Hungary and Turkey are deliberately stoking social tensions rather than seeking consensus.

The report shows that the quality of democracy in many western industrial nations is waning, with democratic standards declining in 26 of the countries surveyed, compared with similar data from four years earlier. ‘Even within the OECD and the EU, the model of liberal democracy is subject to growing pressure—in some countries this means that even central democratic and constitutional standards such as media freedoms are already severely damaged or undermined,’ it finds.

Compounding this worrying trend, the study’s authors identify a simultaneous decline in the adequacy of governance, with many countries losing ground on key measures of good governance. more>

Democratising Europe: by taxation or by debt?

Europe desperately needs to resolve its collective-action problem to emerge from the crisis. Democratizing Europe, with a fiscal capacity, is better than monetary easing.
By Manon Boujou, Lucas Chancel, Anne-Laure Delatte, Thomas Piketty, Guillaume Sacriste, Stéphanie Hennette and Antoine Vauchez – On December 10th 2018 we launched a Manifesto for the Democratization of Europe, along with 120 European politicians and academics. Since it was launched, the manifesto has accrued over 110,000 signatures and it is still open for more. It includes a project for a treaty and a budget enabling the countries which so wish to set up a European Assembly and a genuine policy for fiscal, social and environmental justice in Europe—all available multilingually on the website.

In the Guardian, on December 13th, Yanis Varoufakis presented his ‘Green New Deal’ as an alternative to the manifesto, which he considers to be irrelevant.

The Varoufakis plan builds on the European Investment Bank (EIB) which is responsible for issuing bonds to the value of €500 billion per annum, including these securities in the program of purchase of securities by the European Central Bank (ECB).

The main criticism by Varoufakis seems to be the following: why do you want to create yet more new taxes when one can create money? Our budget is indeed financed by taxation, whereas his plan is financed by public debt.

In his proposals, private firms involved in the ecological transition borrow money from the ECB, after having been selected by the EIB.

In fact, part of this arrangement already exists in the form of the Juncker plan. What Varoufakis adds is the purchase of securities by the ECB rather than by private investors. more>